10 The Myth of Indifferent Parents

One of the colonial motivations for putting children in Residential Schools was the misconception that Indigenous parents were unfit and unable to care for their children. Indigenous people were viewed as drunkards, thieves, lazy, selfish, and emotionally uncaring, among other horrible traits. This was far from the truth for the majority of parents who cared deeply for their children.  A common response from Shingwauk Principal George Ley King to parents who wanted to remove their sons from the Residential School was “if you truly had his best interest at heart, you would not try to interrupt his education.”

However, most of the parents who wanted to remove their children were doing so in their best interest, as the child may have complained of lack of food, lack of proper clothing, poor sanitary conditions, or of various physical abuses among other terrible circumstances at Residential School.

This myth of the indifferent parent has persisted past the Residential School system. It was prevalent during the Sixties Scoop where children were removed from Indigenous families and fostered with white families. This practice continues today with the inordinate number of Indigenous children in the foster care system.

The majority of settlers, especially those working in government or the Residential School System, believed that Indigenous parents did not care about their children or their education. It was thought that parents simply let their children run amok at home without giving them any kind of education, and that they did not care enough to give them a Western education. People who believed this were completely ignorant of the traditional Indigenous education system of looking, listening, and learning, which often gave children all the knowledge they needed to be able to live a good life (Miller, 1996). This traditional passing of knowledge was administered with a great deal of patience and love, and survivors have spoken about how safe, loved, and well taken care of they felt in their communities (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Just because Indigenous parents were ambivalent about Western teaching styles does not mean they did not care about the children’s education.

Many parents wrote letters to the school to inquire about how their children were doing in class work or how they were progressing at their trade. Lack of proper education was often an argument used by parents to gain the discharge and return of their children. George Ley King received a letter from the father of E. Wrightman which he said was “written of course in the usual style of an Indian parent trying to keep his boy from school”. The letter stated that the child was not learning fast enough, that he wasn’t learning a trade, and other complaints about his education, all legitimate reasons to want to remove a child from a class or school. However, King viewed these instead as excuses in order to bring the child home to do work so the parents could be lazy.

Residential School staff often told the children that their parents did not care about them or their education (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015) and despite the evidence to the contrary, many of those children began to believe it was true. Many children felt abandoned and unloved by parents who sent them far away, did not come to visit, did not write, or did not send them money to come home (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). But parents often had no choice in the matter. Once education became compulsory, parents were threatened with hefty fines or jail for non-compliance. Likewise, families may not have been able to afford to send travel money for the children to come home, especially if the child had been sent to a school far away from their home community. This lack of options made parents feel helpless and even more upset at losing their children to a far away school where contact was extremely limited (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). If parents were working to remove their children from the school, the children would not be made aware of this, and any correspondence related to the topic of leaving the school was screened and not passed on to the child.

Parents were often extremely distraught at having to send their children away. Survivor Alma Scott, who attended the Fort Alexander school in Manitoba, recounts “I can still remember my mom and dad looking at us, and they were really, really sad looking. My dad’s shoulders were just hunched, and he, to me, it looked like his spirit was broken” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Oshkapukeda, the father of Ningwinnena, who was renamed Frederick Oshkapukeda when he came to Shingwauk, was profoundly sad at sending his son away, but felt that it was best for his education. “I know I shall be sad without him, I shall weep often for him, but I want him to be taught, and I will try to control myself until he returns to see me next summer…I know I shall lie awake at night and grieve the loss of my boy. We Indians cannot bear to be parted from our children, but it is right that he should go. If my heart is too heavy for me to bear, I shall come to Red Rock and get on the Fire Ship and come to see him” (quoted in Wilson, 1886)

For children who had passed away at the school, parents or guardians would try to attend the funeral if they were informed with enough time to travel. Some even tried to get the body of their child returned to their home community for burial. This was the case with William Sahguhcheway’s aunt and uncle. William’s brother Elijah had died at home a year before William, and on his deathbed William expressed a strong desire to be buried beside his brother. However, Principal Edward Wilson and William were very close and Wilson selfishly wanted to keep the body at Shingwauk so he could visit the grave. Although he made it sound like he was giving the family options, suggesting they come pick the body up or pay for a lead coffin, neither of those were possible for them and so the body was buried in the Shingwauk cemetery against the original wishes of William’s family and of William himself.

Staff at the schools believed that parents were a bad influence on their children, and Principal George Ley King wanted to completely ban children from going home for summer holidays.  Officials thought that parents would encourage children to revert back to “savage ways” and cause students to forget all they learned in Residential School. A lot of what students would have been picking up from their parents would have been traditional knowledge and activities, things like language, medicine and fruit gathering, fishing ,hunting, etc. These would be considered leisure activities by the settler communities and so seen as evidence that parents were encouraging their children to “loaf” when in fact these activities were both culturally significant and helping to sustain the community.

A common belief was that parents were selfish and only wanted their children home so that they did not have to work. King was convinced that the majority of parents who were trying to remove their children from Shingwauk were only doing so because they had their own interests in mind, and he urged them to put their children first by leaving them at school. He stated to a Department of Indian Affairs representative that “parents can have no legitimate excuse for keeping their boys at home”.

However, parents were often working in their children’s best interest by trying to remove them or refusing to send them back because they had found out about the bad conditions at the school or abuse the child had experienced. The parents of Shingwauk students Charles Noah and Jacob Pheasant were fortunate enough to be able to hire a solicitor to argue on their behalf for the discharge of their children from the school in the 1890s. This was a particularly concerted effort on the part of the parents since it was actually illegal for Indigenous people to hire a lawyer until 1951 (Griner, 2013). King was always extremely frustrated when students did not return after the summer holidays and blamed this on bad parenting, he said “their parents are worse than foolish in detaining them on the Reserve”. His use of the word detaining is interesting because it makes it seem like the children want to return but the parents are selfishly preventing them. It’s also reflective of what the Residential School System was doing with children by detaining them at schools and not allowing them to return home for years.

Another clear sign that parents cared for their children was that they came to visit them while at the schools. The family of George and Abram Esquimaux came and camped outside the Shingwauk for a few weeks during the summer of 1898, likely because George and Abram were denied holiday leave that year. Many parents also came to visit and care for their children themselves when they were sick, spending as much time as needed to ensure the child was well again. These visits were often discouraged though, and if parents did come they would either be denied access to their children or their visit would be highly controlled (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015).

When parents could not come to visit, they often wrote letters to their children or to the principal to see how their children were, but as mentioned before correspondence was monitored so children were unable to talk about any abuses they were experiences, or even about school activities or other students. Both Wilson and King wrote letters to parents especially in regards to children’s health. This is in contrast to later years of the system when parents were not even informed that their child was sick, let alone whether they had passed away.

Where bad parenting did exist, those parents were likely Residential School Survivors themselves and the lack of parenting skills was a direct result of the system and not something inherent in the Indigenous population. Many Survivors have spoken about the lack of socialization they received at Residential School which led to them not being able to interact properly with spouses and children (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Emotional trauma coping mechanisms may have manifested as domestic abuse and alcoholism, further perpetuating harmful myths about Indigenous parents and Indigenous people in general.

Racist thoughts about Indigenous people as parents continued into the later years of the Residential School system and beyond it with the Sixties Scoop. The Scoop involved a series of child welfare policies which led to a large number of Indigenous children being removed from their homes and adopted out to white families. Indigenous children lost connection to their language, culture, and communities and were often treated poorly and made to be ashamed of their Indigenous heritage (CBC, 2019). Many see this as a continuation of the Residential School system just under a different name. The removal of Indigenous children has continued into the present with the outrageous number of Indigenous children in the foster care system. More than half the children in the system are Indigenous even though Indigenous children make up only 7.7% of Canadian children under 14, and the issue has been referred to as a humanitarian crisis (Brake, 2018). The Canadian Government recently passed Bill C-92 which hands back control over child welfare to Indigenous people and allows those children to be cared for in culturally appropriate ways which recognize and celebrate their heritage.



Miller, J.R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.


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Shingwauk Narratives: Sharing Residential School History Copyright © by Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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